Patagonia Ambassador, Dean Potter, generates controversy with Delicate Arch climb

On Sunday, May 7, well-known climber Dean Potter created a firestorm of controversy by publicly climbing the most famous rock formation in Utah. Delicate Arch is not only the symbol of Arches National Park, but has been used on license plates, highways signs and tourist material for decades. After soloing the Delicate Arch, a climb that countless other equally talented climbers have passed up (or climbed on the sly), Potter used a cord to pull up a rope, rappel off, and then repeated the climb several more times for video and still photographers there to document the climb. This is not the first time Potter has drawn attention to himself with the park service. Only months before, Potter had strung a slackline between two of the summits on the Three Gossips, famous towers that are near the Arches National Park entrance and highly visible -- though that incident didn't generate anywhere near the anger or frustration that the Delicate Arch climb has.
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On Sunday, May 7, well-known climber Dean Potter created a firestorm by publicly climbing the most famous rock formation in Utah. Delicate Arch is not only the symbol of Arches National Park, but has been used on license plates, highways signs and tourist material for decades. 

After soloing the Delicate Arch, a climb that countless other equally talented climbers have passed up (or climbed on the sly), Potter used a cord to pull up a rope, rappel off, and then reportedly repeated the climb several more times for a video and a still photographer there to document the climb. This is not the first time Potter, a Patagonia-sponsored climber, has drawn attention to himself with the park service. Only months before, Potter strung a slackline between two of the summits on the Three Gossips -- famous towers that are near the Arches National Park entrance and highly visible -- though that incident didn't generate anywhere near the anger or frustration that the Delicate Arch climb has.

This current climb made TV news on three stations in Salt Lake City, which also aired interviews with the infuriated park superintendent, Laura Joss. The Salt Lake Tribune ran two articles and a scathing editorial on the climb. The Associate Press picked up on the story late Tuesday. By Wednesday afternoon, the AP article complete with photo of the climb had run in at least 50 newspapers around the United States and as far as England and Australia.

When news that the climb might be illegal surfaced, his sponsor Patagonia issued a press release that in part read, “As a policy, Patagonia neither endorses nor condemns our Ambassadors' individual activities. We trust that our athletes are the best judge of their own actions, and rely on them to act with care for themselves and the natural environment.”

The company's website states: “Patagonia's Alpine Ambassadors are some of the best and most highly respected climbers in the world. They're part of our extended family, helping us to develop products, acting as spokespeople and sending us photos and essays from their worldwide adventures. We employ them part-time, on a contract basis, which allows them lots of latitude to guide, rep, work on movies and of course, climb.”

“Everything Dean has done up to this point has been an absolute fit with Patagonia's mission and values,” Casey Sheahan, president of Patagonia told SNEWS®. “This climb caught us by surprise.”

According to Patagonia's press release, “We are currently looking into the situation and working with Dean to make sure we come to a reasonable resolution. We have always been a group of people that mixes things up, and we tend not to work with people that are 'by the book.' However, the last thing we want to do is alienate people, especially our customers and long-term cohorts.”

The climb was so controversial that the Access Fund had to send Jason Keith, policy director, to meet with the park's superintendent to soothe over the wounds by condemning the climb. Following the meeting, the non-profit organization issued a press release stating, “The Access Fund does not condone the climb of Delicate Arch and the actions of this individual are not representative of the climbing community.”

Internet forums buzzed with activity, including various doctored photos. Predictably, some climbers applauded the climb as harkening back to the days when climbing was considered a rebellious activity. But most of the sentiment was soundly against the climb.

As a result of the climb, which the park service decided was not technically illegal since Delicate Arch was not specifically identified on a list of prohibited arches (even though it is identified on current USGS 7.5 minute topographical maps), the Arches National Park has rewritten the regulations governing climbing in the park – see below:

Old regulations (Pre Potter Climb) – Climbing is prohibited on any arch identified on current USGS 7.5 minute topographical maps; on Balanced Rock year-round; on Bubo from January 1st to June 30th; on Industrial Disease on the Devil Dog Spire from January 1st to June 30th. The use of chalk for climbing must be of a color which blends with the native rock.

New regulations (Post Potter Climb) – Effective May 9, 2006, under the authority of Title 36 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Part 1, Section 1.5(a)(1), all rock climbing or similar activities on any arch or natural bridge named on the United States Geological Survey 7.5 minute topographical maps covering Arches National Park are prohibited. In addition, 'slacklining' in Arches National Park is prohibited. Slacklining is defined as walking on a rope or other line that is anchored between rock formations, trees or any other natural features. Height of the rope above the ground is immaterial. These closures are based upon a determination that such action is necessary for the maintenance of public health and safety, protection of environmental or scenic values, protection of natural resources and avoidance of conflict among visitor use activities.

SNEWS® View: Patagonia's “climbing ambassador” has done a huge disservice to the company and the climbing community at large. Potter, by focusing only on himself and an ego cloud that apparently is so large it blocked out any rays of common sense, has greatly damaged the reputation of climbers in the eyes of land managers and the non-climbing public nationwide. Thanks to Potter and his climb, millions of people around the country who couldn't care less about climbing in their parks now believe they have a poster-child example of how climbers as a group disrespect a national heritage. Meanwhile, the Access Fund and other climbers are left scrambling to clean up the mess and hopefully ensure this does not result in a typical overreaction by public land managers leading to climbing closures that would not have occurred otherwise.

Did Potter physically damage Delicate Arch during his climb? As far as we are aware, the answer is "no." Potter has long prided himself on a free climbing ethic that leaves no trace according to Patagonia. Was the climb illegal? That would be a "no" as well -- even though it would appear the majority of those knowledgeable on park and climbing regulations in Arches (including authors of local climbing guides) believed otherwise. Could it be that Potter, a select circle of friends, and a park ranger he supposedly spoke with to obtain permission for the climb are the only ones that have interpreted the National Park regulations on climbing named arches in the park correctly all this time? Technically, it might appear the answer is "yes." The National Park Service has stated that Potter will not be prosecuted because the rule was written so that Potter can claim a definition of terminology a la Clinton. Illegal or not, the climb continues to be decried by many as a desecration of a national symbol. 

Potter remains unrepentant, despite the avalanche of bad press and publicity raining down on him and his sponsor. Blogs are screaming, for the most part condemning Potter. Some are poking great fun at Patagonia. See image to the right (viewable only online).

Doubtless Patagonia was hoping the controversy would just fade away – little chance of that unless the company, a traditionally shining example of environmental responsibility, does more than it has to date in response to the incident. While Patagonia escaped some national attention by not being mentioned in the AP article, the company earned a black eye in Utah. One can certainly appreciate that Patagonia is staunchly loyal toward its sponsored athletes and friends, and loath to act like a parent by disciplining poor judgment and behavior. But in this case, by adhering to that loyalty, the company has stumbled badly in not firmly and most emphatically condemning, if not the athlete, then the climb.

We would suggest, like other Delicate Arch transgressors before him, Potter volunteer his name and time to a public apology, at least 150 hours of community service on behalf of the Arches National Park, and a “donation” of money to be used in ads by the Access Fund in magazines around the country promoting responsible climbing.

What do you think Potter should do -- or for that matter, Potter's sponsor, Patagonia? Click here to voice your opinion in our SNEWS® Chat set up just for this topic -- it is private and viewable only by SNEWS® subscribers, so feel free to open up the discussion and bare your soul.

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